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Author Topic: Great villains - what makes them great?
genevive42
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What are some of the elements that make a great villain?

Who are your favorite villains, cinematic or literary, and why?

Do you prefer sympathetic villains or downright evil?

Some of my favorites: Darth Vader
Khan - Star Trek 2
Mr.Freeze - Batman Animated Series
Doc Oc - Spiderman 2

The last three are sympathetic to some degree, but Darth Vader isn't until ROTJ. Vader has great style but what else has a theater full of people enjoying the heck out of hissing at the character when he comes on the screen?

I look forward to your thoughts.


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arriki
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Mr. John Barrows in the YA novel PINCH.
Why? He was so infuriating. Never did anything you could really call him on, but geez --

Does Dexter in the tv series DEXTER count? He IS a serial killer after all.


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Kitti
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Mr. Jackson, from David Baldacci's The Winner is hands-down my favorite bad guy of all times. I can't explain why, he's utterly evil, but when you're in his head he just... makes sense.

I also am fond of Snape, from Harry Potter, for the same reason. He's a character I love to hate because I understand him.


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Fooglmog
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Hannibal Lecter, hands down.

Anthony Hopkins' performance in this role gives off all the right cues to make us trust the man. So much so, that we never question why the character he gains power over are so stupid (like we do with most villains). He's a character that we know from the start is a seducer, yet we're drawn to him anyway and in the end (thanks to brilliant scripts), we end up the victims of his seductions just as much as the characters he's interacting with on screen.

He's smarter than I am. He's fascinating. I know that if I ever met him, I'd think that I know enough not to be taken in as a fool by him.. but in the end, I almost certainly would be anyway.


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Denem
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I had to give this one some thought.
I'd have to say Randell Flagg from Stephen King's The Stand.
He was calm, cavalier, then all of a sudden he's like a tornado...destruction unleashed. Not really sympathetic in any way, just loved the way he went from one extreme to the other almost instantly.

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MrsBrown
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I'd say bad guys who are real people; characters who think they're doing the right thing. Maybe he gets caught up in something that drags him in the wrong direction, but I can understand why he does what he does. Gimme some depth.

Examples are the Soviets in Tom Clancy's thrillers (Jack Ryan series), and the priest Hrathen in Elantris.

But then, I'm not thinking of true villains, bad to the bone. I guess I don't care too much for them, except so far as they provide a foil for the good guys. In that case I'd say rachet him up and make him really scary or disturbing. But I still want a plausible reason for why he acts the way he does. In that regard I'd say the bad guys in the Spiderman movies were pretty well drawn. And the priest Dilaf in Elantris.

[This message has been edited by MrsBrown (edited August 27, 2009).]


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genevive42
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I'm going to continue with cinematic examples because they are what seem to be at the front of my head.

Anyone remember "The Bad Seed"? I think it was black and white. The little girl in that movie was manipulative and evil and she still gives me the creeps. Good villain for effect but she wouldn't keep me coming back had there been sequels.

Hannibal Lecter, as mentioned previously, even more evil and vicious but also more intriguing. He does keep people coming back. I agree that his intelligence and plotting have a lot to do with it. I think we're always waiting to see what he'll do next.


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Andrew_McGown
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Fagin and Bill Sykes.
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snapper
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The Borg.

Hands down greatest villians ever. The thought of being forcibly 'assimulated' into a single anti-individual society is a fate worse than death, in my mind. Their 'resistance is futile' catch phrase sums up their cold nature.

Creating a 'queen' lessen their collective, single minded objective.


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MAP
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I have to agree that Hannibal Lecter is an amazing villian. He is so evil, and yet I find myself almost wanting him to win. That is just twisted.

I also really liked the Joker from The Dark Knight. Which is funny because we know nothing about him, everything he tells us is a lie, and his only motivation is to create chaos. I would think that this would make him seem underdeveloped, but it doesn't. Perhaps that is why I find him so fascinating. I can't figure out how they managed to give him depth. Most of the credit goes to Heath Ledger's incredible performance.


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genevive42
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Heath Ledger's Joker was certainly psychotic and disturbing but that's also what keeps me from wanting to see it again. To me there was no depth beyond that and I was shocked more than intrigued. I would not have come back for another movie had there been a chance for one.

I actually have to put in a vote for Jack Nicholson's Joker. He is a villain that is hard not to like. It's a little bit of a love/hate thing, as so many good villains are, but he actually gave us a glimpse of what was going on in the Joker's head. I know that's the script too, but Nicholson brought a great flavor to the character and really amped up that movie.

So with villains on the screen, how much is the script and how much is the actor?


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Rhaythe
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"Serenity" - The Operative:
Excellent characterization and build-up to him. He's smart, he understands he's evil, and he accepts it. He does what must be done, but has no illusions about what he does. But he is remarkably efficient at it and I understand his drive behind what he does.

"Sunshine" - Pinbacker:
I like this guy for completely opposite reasons that the above. He's head-deep crazy, and I have an affinity for characters deluded enough to believe themselves religiously divine. I actually enjoyed his speech at the end about being the last man with God. Granted, little characterization surrounding him, but I liked how they built him up.

I'll post some more later. Work is requiring me to do some actual work. What the heck?! It's Friday!!


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rstegman
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I loved Kladus in FLASH GORDEN, He was someone who was a conneseur (sp) of his job. He just wanted to do his job the best he could, even if it was torture for he pure reason of torture.

I hated Emperor Ming or the emperor in the first three released Star Wars. They were paper characters, no depth. They were Evil and seamed to take pleasure in the thought of some one suffering.

Joker was the best character I had ever seen. That should have been the joker movie, not Batman.


The good guy cannot do wrong, are only out to do good, whatever they are. They are pressed paper where there is some depth to them.

The bad guy is flat paper just there to be evil. tending to be there at the end to be destroyed.

The henchmen tend to not be pure evil, There is some good in them, but their "good" is directed to their duties, not to some admirable action. They tend to be the best developed character in the stories I have read.

The best "evil" person I have seen was the admiral in Timothy Kahn's DARK FORCE series. Everything he did was thought out, logical, and exact opposite to what the Skywalker team were up to. I might not have agreed with what he was doing, I loved his methods and thought process. He commanded differently than darth Vadar did. I had respect for him and his motives. He was a character I really loved.

Basically, if the evil person is well rounded, and I understand his thought process, even if I disagree with it, I will like the evil person.


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genevive42
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So one of the things that these villains seem to have in common is a passion for what they are doing.

They have a belief in the rightness of their actions no matter how twisted they may seem to the rest of us.

Would you agree?

It also seems that they need to be an adversary that is well matched to the hero. Someone who creates a good contest. Are they equal to the hero in brains and power or are they slightly better? Or is it the lack of restriction to do good that makes them seem better?


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Rhaythe
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I would say that as long as a reader/viewer/listener can understand a "villain's" motivations that they can connect to him/her/it. If they can't connect, your audience won't really care. And without a good villain, you can't have a good hero.
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rstegman
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genevive42,

Usually, the evil one is distracted, involved in other things. In most stories, the hero is dealing with minor minions.
In many stories, the evil one tends to be arrayed against big powerful armies, and the hero is a small band that is trying to slip through holes in the defenses.

I have read a lot of stories where the minions of the evil one are really incompetent. that is why untrained, unskilled, clueless heroes can beat them time after time.
The Evil one seams not to be able to bring their forces in line and to a high level of training.
Another thing I see is when the evil armies are made of many groups, they tend to want to fight each other more than the good guys.

WE know that an a time of poor communications, it is not too difficult for a small force to hit a site and then escape, and continue on. If the leadership is not receiving incident reports, the local command might not know what happened before, and might not be ready to deal with a quick moving small force.

Usually, the bad guy is just weak enough for the hero to beat.


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Robert Nowall
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The puppeteer (Stromboli?) and the guy who picked up kids for Pleasure Island in Disney's "Pinnochio."

*****

On Jack Nicholson's Joker...I thought he was less a villain than what happens when everything that makes a human being human is stripped away---things like compassion and fear of death come to mind. (I also thought that if it hadn't been for his performance, that version of "Batman" would have been unwatchable---as were several subsequent entries in the series.)


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ScardeyDog
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I would have to say Magneto from X-men is one of my favorite villans. (Not X-men 3 though, that was a terrible movie. Ok, all the X-men movies were pretty bad.) He's an intelligent man reacting logically to his past experiences. When he was young he was sent to a concentration camp for being Jewish. Now that he is older, and as a mutant even more different, he gathers together other mutants to try to get the first strike before they are rounded up and sent to camps again.
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Ben Trovato
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Seconding The Operative as an excellent villain, and Klytus from Flash Gordon. Sympathetic villains aren't that important; just as long as they're smart.

Jack Vance--any and all of the Demon Princes, particularly Lens Larque (monster clown)or Howard Alan Treesong (malevolent whimsy, much like the Joker, only worse.)


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genevive42
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Are villains, by definition, arrogant?

Can you name a good villain who is not arrogant?


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CaptJay76
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Since Superman is my favorite hero, it follows that Lex Luthor is my favorite villain. Forget whatever you've seen in the movies, cartoons, or television. I'm going with the current comic version. He really BELIEVES he's doing the right thing. He feels that with Superman out of the way, humanity can move on to greatness, and that he himself can lead them to that greatness.

I think that's the key. The villain BELIEVES HE'S THE HERO. Read the miniseries "Lex Luthor: Man of Steel." It shows this perfectly.


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WouldBe
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Frederick Fairlie in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White was a disturbing character who was a physical threat to no one. He was a hypochondriacal (if that's a word) invalid of no specific malady who used his infirmity to control others almost diabolically. He mixed his misanthropy with an effeminate front that further disturbed his victims (family/friends). Collins had some strong characters, here, and pioneered the mystery/detective genre. Quite an achievement IMHO.
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Pyre Dynasty
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I think a good villain should be a tragedy. Otherwise they are just a bad guy or, on a lower tier, a thug.

For Darth Vader there was a sadness about him, even before we found out the reason. (This had much more to do with the guy in the suit than with James Earl Jones, it is sad that I don't know his name. Even sadder that when they took the mask off it was a third guy. But then it was sad when the face of Vader's ghost was replaced in the later versions of ROTJ with that young punk.)

Another good example of this is Davey Jones from the Pirates movies.

The Siege of Mt. Nevermind by Furgus Ryan has a great villain, Halion Khargos. The path he takes really makes that story.

In my work in progress my villain actually did save the world once, and then came to hate the world he saved for it's imperfections so he decides to destroy it and make a new one.

Two-Face, especially in The Dark Night. (A movie which I think is the best expression of what a hero is and what a villain is, and how close the two are to each other.)

For me the ultimate Villain is Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7. 'Nuff said.

More favorites:
Magneto
Goullum, hey there's one who wasn't terribly arrogant.
Professor Moriarty. (Both the star trek version and the Doyle version)
Doctor Octopus. (From the original ASM he is more of a bad guy most of the time but he does take the role of villain sometimes. In the 90's cartoon series they made him a much better villainm but they did the best job with him in SpiderMan 2.)
Beatty from Fahrenheit 451.
Ras al Ghul in some instances fits that mold (I'm still fighting with myself whether the Batman Begins version is a villain or not.)
Smallville's Lex Luthor. (Their Lionel Luther was kind of a backwards villain.)
Sylar
Jon Bon Jovi
The agent from Serenity
Boler Hat Guy
Venom (In most incarnations that are not SpiderMan 3, although it was interesting how they made SandMan one, considering I've never seen him as more than a thug.)
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy


I guess it's easier to pull off Villains on film rather than in letters.


Edited to add: I like the "believes he's the hero" thing Capn Jay said. I don't think it's required, but most of my list fit it. Jones knew he was doing wrong though, he was doing it to spite Calypso. To me Heath Leger's Joker fits that but I count him as a bad guy, not a villain, as someone else said earlier he's just not human enough.

[This message has been edited by Pyre Dynasty (edited August 28, 2009).]


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dee_boncci
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One thing makes a great villian in my mind is one who has an understandable (even if you don't agree with it) motive and a "logic" behind their actions that is at least internally consistent once it's discovered. That provides a degree of sympathy with the villian. Hannibal Lector is a notorious example, especially once you've read all the books about him. I also put Gollum in this category.

I don't know how I'd characterize the simply evil, often supernatural, types of villians in terms of what makes them effective. Sauron is my favorite example. Someone mentioned Flagg, who showed up in several of King's books under different guises which I found kind of cool. I suppose some degree of plausibility is required.

Then you have stories like The Godfather where the protagonists are villians (or become villians in the case of Michael Corleone). Another one I liked along those lines was the movie Menace to Society where the main character Caine who had many characteristics of a straight thug became sympathetic when contrasted with his environment.

So I guess I see three types that I am drawn to:

1. The antagonist villian who, while evil, acts in a rational, lucid way in his own version of things.

2. The supernatural, pure evil, antagonist, who's mostly off-stage or acting through others (the "demon"/Satan in The Exorcist is another example aside from those above).

3. The villian as protagonist where the culture/environment tricks you into being sympathetic.

What I don't like as well are what I call comic book style villians that behave arbitrary and/or shallow ways. They can definitely be scary and entertaining, but are much less memorable to me.

[This message has been edited by dee_boncci (edited August 28, 2009).]


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rstegman
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The villains I dislike, are those who do their own work. They lead their henchmen to mess with the hero. A good villain will try to appear uninvolved in what is going on, possibly even acting like a friend of the hero.

I have seen several movies and shows where the crime boss is personally involved, leading the thugs into messing with the hero, roughing him up, breaking things. I have always hated that. If there is a higher authority, evidence can be used to bring the higher authority into the case to take them out. Of course, the hero eventually does in the crime boss, since the crime boss is involved.
Better, no one really knows that the crime boss is directly involved. They know there is some connection between the thugs doing the stuff and the crime boss. This way there is some ability, for the crime boss to deny he is involved, making it difficult for the hero to prove it.

The evil one guiding the actions from behind the scenes, shown but the hero does not know it, makes for a more interesting plot. The hero first must beat the ones doing the harm, then find evidence to lead to the real evil one being brought down.


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ChrisOwens
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I enjoy the two-tiered system. Often, there is an outer, overarching antagonistic force that threatens the milieu, and intimately tied to the protagonist's life, an antagonist more aimed at his/her inner circle.

One of the best, most well drawn villains I've ever read is the pirate Kennit in the Liveship trilogy by Robin Hobb. And yet, on a family level, Kyle is even more reprehensible.


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rich
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What everyone else has said.

I like the villains that are "real". To me, one of the best villains EVER was Hans from DIE HARD. Hans wanted money, was motivated by nothing more than money, and kind of took advantage of the concept of the "terrorist" for nothing more than money. Have I mentioned that all he wanted was money?

I could never understand why the bad guy always wanted to destroy the world, or become ruler of it. Kinda overreaching if you ask me.

Plus, Hans was smart. Not Lecter smart, 'cause that's impossible, but he knew what he wanted, and he knew what to do to get it. He had to overcome obstacles to get what he wanted (it's interesting that Hans/McClane were both having to think on their feet and adapt to further their goals), and he was single-minded and ruthless in his goal.

I was completely onboard DIE HARD when the Japanese guy wouldn't give Hans the access codes so Hans said ok, and killed him in cold blood. Now THAT'S a villain I can get behind. It always bugs me when the villain wants to keep people captive for no other reason than the script calls for it.

Oh, and another good one is the cop that Sinise played in RANSOM. Motivated not so much by money, but by jealousy. Good, REAL stuff.


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genevive42
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The Terminator is relentless because he is programmed that way but we understand his intentions.

The Queen in Aliens is animal like until that one moment when we are shown that she cares about her eggs.

The Predator (in #2) is a hunter and his people are honorable in the end.

These are all non-human villains. Does the race of a villain change your perception?


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johnbrown
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I love this topic because villains are often critical to a successful story. Some of my favorite villains:

- Joker in the Dark Knight
- Sylar in Heroes
- Emperor in Gladiator
- Sheriff in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood
- Itzma in Emperor's New Groove
- Syndrome in The Incredibles

What I've found is that villains are interesting because they both threaten our hero (or someone else if our hero is himself a bit villainous) AND because they have some attribute that makes any person interesting:

-Larger-Than-Life Attributes (as in experience, power, skill, success, position, or behavior)
- Eccentricities and Particularities
- Outrageousness
- Humor
- Beauty
- Surprise (as in against type details, reactions, motivations, or backstory)
- Inner Conflicts (as in the “ethical” dilemmas they find themselves in)

More here: http://johndbrown.com/2009/01/what-makes-a-great-villain/

And here about villainous heroes: http://johndbrown.com/2009/01/villainous-heroes/

And one more: http://johndbrown.com/2009/06/the-main-thing-about-villains/

[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited August 29, 2009).]


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Elan
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I read a quote recently by Maxim Gorky, which said, "A good man can be stupid and still be good. But a bad man must have brains."

With my villains, I always keep in mind the principle that every person is the hero of their own story. The villain's choices should logically further his goals. One might question the ethics, but the logic needs to be present. Villains who are evil simply because their actions are evil and it makes them laugh "Nyah, hah, hah!" belong in cartoons, not well-written novels.


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Robert Nowall
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Sometimes a villain is just a guy who opposes the hero.
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johnbrown
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Think of villains as a category of antagonist. Some antagonists are exactly what Robert said, good guys who oppose and should oppose the hero, e.g. good cops chasing the guys in Prison Break. However, as those antagonists move down the spectrum line towards despicable, cruel, self-serving, etc. they become villains.

There are some villains we get the I'm-the-hero-of-my-story background for (Syndrome). And some we don't (Sauron or the many Orcs). Both can work very well. It just depends on the kind of story and effect you want to produce.


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Unwritten
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The best villains will almost break a hero--my favorite way would be to tempt them to do something rotten. In the process, they will change the hero from an everyday person into a real hero.

I've been thinking about this while watching Prince Caspian with my kids. My favorite thing about these movies is the way Edmund changes from the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the next movie. Whatever he does, you can tell he is thinking about the way he fell and was redeemed. He wouldn't be a real hero without knowing his weaknesses.
Melanie

[This message has been edited by Unwritten (edited August 30, 2009).]


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RillSoji
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Lords of Zhev'Na in Carol Berg's Bridge of D'Arnath series. For me, they trumped all previous bad guys that I thought I knew. Carol Berg did a superb job of making me really believe that her bad guys were bad. And the thing is, she doesn't spend a lot of time with them actively in the story. It's mostly reputation and running into the effects of things they've done.

I prefer a truly downright evil villain. It makes the heroes more believable and more, well, heroic.


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MartinV
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Damn it! All my favourite villains have been listed already.

Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (by Alan Rickman) - the guy is spitting curses and ranting all the time but always finds the time to do some cold methodical diabolical thinking (picking his teeth while catapults burn the outlaws alive is also a nice touch)

Joker (by Heath Ledger) - he was simply brilliant. Erratic yet calm. Who else could do that? "You know how I got these scars?"

The Operative from Serenity - cold, yet calmly acknowledging he is a monster. Who can do that?

Hannibal Lector (by Anthony Hopkins) - by far my personal best, though I do not see him evil at all. I see him as a man disappointed in humanity. He only tortures and kills those who have tried (sometimes succeeded) to harm him. That is why he is constantly in the arts; that is the beautiful, uncorrupted part of humanity. Why doesn't he harm Clarice? Because while she does try to arrest him, she is doing it because she believes he is evil and must be put away. But she has no personal agenda in it. She is good. He cannot harm good people. I admire him for that. And also for coming up with the most creative ways of dismembering people.

My own prime villain has a bit of Hannibal in him. If I had a chance, I would very much like to become his friend. I think we would get along famously. ;-)


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Zero
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I'm a fan of the antagonist not being an evil person, just another somewhat sympathetic character, acting against the main character's goals. Maybe he/she is a rival.

ooh for instance Snape would be a good example

[This message has been edited by Zero (edited September 01, 2009).]


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Crystal Stevens
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Most of my favorites have been listed too. There's only two I can think of that are not on anyone's lists that I'd like to add:

Dr. Doom from the Marvel Comics and his battles with the Fantastic Four is considered one of the greatest villians in comicdom if not all time, right up there with Lex Luthor. I'm talking about the comics and not the movies, though both are good.

The other one is Nicolae Carpathia from the Left Behind series. He gave me goose bumps at the end of the first book.


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